Photo: By Kirill for BLAST
“They pray for the death of our dynasty like ‘Amen’
Right here stands a man
With the power to make a diamond with his bare hands” – Kanye West, Diamonds
The biggest storyline at IEM Katowice 2019 is who can kill Astralis? By the end of 2018 Astralis have constructed the most dominant year in CS:GO history. They have won the Major, they have won the IEM Grand Slam, they have an unprecedented win streak on nuke, and they have crafted an era. While it has been the most superlative performance of any team, they are not invincible. They have dropped some series across time and have had close matches. So it isn’t impossible to beat them, just extraordinarily difficult. As that’s the case, the big question everyone has going into the IEM Katowice Major is who can kill Astralis?
The 7 times Astralis Lost a bo3+
With the Major format set as it is, teams have to now beat Astralis in a bo3 to eliminate them. As that’s the case, we will look at historical examples of when a teams upsetting Astralis in bo3s. For the purposes of this article, I’ll look from the beginning of Astralis era to now, which starts at DreamHack Marseille. The reasoning is that the series before then are less relevant as Astralis has yet to come into full force.
From DreamHack Marseille to now, Astralis have played a total of 15 tournaments. Among those, they have lost a best-of-three or more at six of those tournaments: IEM Sydney, ESL One Cologne 2018, DreamHack Stockholm 2018, ECS Season 6 Finals, IEM Chicago, and IBP Masters.
At IEM Sydney, FaZe beat Astralis 3-0 with the Richard “Xizt” Landstrom lineup, though it was the closest 0-3 you’re like to ever see. At ESL One Cologne, Na`Vi upset them in the semifinals 2-1 off the back of virtuoso performances from Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev and Denis “electronic” Sharipov. The additional X-factor they needed at that tournament was Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko who dropped 31 on inferno.
At DreamHack Stockholm, Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen led North as an in-game leader and player to upset Astralis twice, once in the group stages and once more in the grand finals. At ECS Season 6 Finals and IEM Chicago, Astralis dropped two best-of-threes in non-elimination matches. They lost to MIBR in the groups at ECS Season 6 and got their revenge in the finals. At IEM Chicago, FaZe upset them 2-0 in the upper bracket. Finally at IBP Masters, Liquid were able to beat Astralis with their new player Jake “Stewie2K” Yip.
When we look at the broad spectrum of teams they’ve faced, there is no obvious commonality or formula to defeating Astralis. None of the teams have found a consistent answer to what Astralis is bringing. FaZe, Na`Vi, and Liquid (pre-Stewie2k) all have incredible firepower, but that has only amounted to three different series wins over a span of 8 months (four if you count the FaZe victory over Astralis before they started their era). If we’re talking about tactics, then North managed it twice at Stockholm, but that lineup no longer exists. All of these teams have had different styles of play, so it isn’t just one style or player that but something else.
The Surprise Factor
As it currently stands, there is no specific type of player or style of play that can hard counter Astralis. However if you look at all of those upset victories, I think the biggest denominator among all of them is the surprise factor. The FaZe lineup at IEM Sydney was a makeshift lineup that played loose and was still based around the calling style of Finn “Karrigan” Andersen. In that finals, FaZe out-skilled Astralis. However the second time they met, Astralis smashed them into the ground 16-3 and 16-6 the next time they met at ESL Proleague Season 7 Finals.
Astralis is a team whose consistency comes from their ability to learn and adapt from the problems they are given. That is why Liquid had such a hard time as they have played against Astralis the most. The only time they managed to do it was at IBP Masters where the event itself and the changing of the rosters likely affected the outcome. Let’s run the gamut of all of these losses.
The Na`Vi lineup took time to reach their final form as they had electronic in the wrong roles and didn’t figure it out until StarSeries i-League Season 5. In that tournament, Astralis wasn’t in attendance and the first time Astralis met this reformed Na`Vi was at ESL One Cologne. Na`Vi came into that tournament with three different adjustments that Astralis had no experience against. First they had electronic in better roles. Second they started to fully utilize s1mple as an economy breaker by having him win forcebuy rounds. Third, they started to do a bunch of gamble stacks on the CT-side. Astralis couldn’t adapt in the moment and as Na`Vi’s form was exceptional that tournament, Na`Vi upset Astralis.
However in the following matchups, Astralis started to adapt to those changes. They figured out electronic’s new roles, found ways to get the info to figure out Na`Vi’s gamble stacks, and also became a far better forcebuy team themselves should they be stuck in such scenarios again.
In the case of MSL, he had watched 150 demos which allowed him to have a far better read on Astralis compared to anyone else in the world. North also came into that tournament with a new style of play as MSL became the primary AWPer and used himself as a mini-device. The move worked as North beat Astralis both times. In this particular example, we never saw the two teams match up again as the North lineup with MSL died soon after. It is worth noting that Astralis did figure out an inherent weakness on their dust2 CT-setups thanks in large part to MSL’s abuse of long control.
At ECS Season 6, MIBR upset Astralis in the group stages. This team also played Astralis close in the BLAST Copenhagen finals where they narrowly lost 1-2. This scenario was similar to the Na`Vi’s situation. MIBR had been unable to fit either Stewie2k or Tarik “tarik” Celik in their system, something that plagued them throughout 2018. The team then brought on Janko “YNk” Paunovic as a coach and while not perfect, the team became stronger afterward. ECS Season 6 was the peak of those improvements and Astralis had yet to understand MIBR’s playstyle. While MIBR surprised them in the group stage, Astralis were able to come back and win the finals in an intensely close fashion.
The last two upsets to go over were FaZe’s victory over them at IEM Chicago. By this point, Nikola “NiKo” Kovac was fully in control as in-game leader and his style of calling was inherently different from Karrigan’s. Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer had also finally come back into the team. With the superstars of FaZe going off, they were able to clean out Astralis in this match. The next time they played was at Lisbon, where again Astralis smashed FaZe into the ground as they won 16-4 in the bo1.
The final upset to go over was Liquid’s victory at IBP Masters. There were a multitude of problems that happened at that event, so it’s hard to take any data from it meaningfully from Astralis’ side. The biggest factor we can point to is that Liquid played a far looser style with the implementation of Stewie2k and that along with some key players from Astralis going missing, was enough for Liquid to win that particular finals.
The Likely Candidates
Now that I’ve gone over the various upsets, it’s time to see which teams have what it takes to upset Astralis. Among the various teams in the world, I think there are only five teams that have a good chance of beating Astralis in a bo3 at the Major. They are:
MIBR were able to show a lot of success at playing Astralis close in the latter half of 2018. When I look back at why MIBR were so close, I think a lot of it has to do with Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo’s calling style. He is someone who oscillated between extremely slow tactical CS and cheesy aggressive CS. This seems to be off-putting for the Astralis guys on their CT-side.
Outside of the server, there are multiple surprise factors coming in. The team has made three changes to their lineup with two new players and a coach. All three look to be potential improvements. Epitacio “TACO” de Melo was a critical part of the teamplay structure of the squad and that will only be amplified with Wilton “zews” Prado returning as coach. The return of Joao “felps” Vasconcellos as a potential star player could add enough surprise that Astralis won’t be able to deal with it correctly the first time. Finally, Astralis has no official data on how MIBR plays. For all of these reasons, I think MIBR have the highest potential to upset Astralis in a bo3.
Na`Vi don’t have any surprise factor, but they do have a s1mple. When you’re toting around a nuclear weapon into the game, you always have a chance to upset. The reason I think Na`Vi has a chance is because of the way the map veto works out between Na`Vi and Astralis. Na`Vi will always have a secure map victory as they will always be favored against Astralis on either Train or Overpass. The problem for Na`Vi though is that they can’t let nuke through anymore as Astralis are too strong on it. As that’s the case, they have to ban nuke and let cache through.
At BLAST Lisbon, Astralis used cache to punish Na`Vi, but this turn of events opens up a chance for Na`Vi to surprise Astralis. If they can figure out how to play cache (a tall order as I’ve never seen Zeus get a team good on that particular map), they can surprise Astralis and steal a series. The problem with this scenario is that Astralis could also pick Inferno and smash Na`Vi that way.
Liquid is the second best team in the world. However they have always had a terrible matchup against Astralis, which is why I have them below MIBR, Na`Vi, and FaZe in terms of going up against Astralis head-to-head. However there is some hope in that there is potentially a psychological boost for the squad as they did beat Astralis at IBP Masters. The biggest problem with this scenario for me though is that Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz has often been the key player that ended Liquid’s hopes of beating Liquid in the past and he didn’t show up at that event.
On the other hand, Liquid showed that they were even more loose with the AWP than before as they constantly shifted it between four of their five players. By constantly shifting the AWP around and playing a loose style, Liquid do have a chance to surprise Astralis and potentially win another bo3 series. Finally, I think their map veto has gotten better as they are now banning nuke instead of trying to end Astralis undefeated streak.
Man-for-man, FaZe is still the most skilled lineup in the world. With the addition of Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev, they are more skilled than ever before. FaZe’s chances will depend on two things. How much better a team will they have become in the time between the ELeague Invitational and the Legends Stage, and how they look on the day. While FaZe aren’t one of the favorites to win the event, they are an incredible dark horse.
The final team on this list is one that has yet to beat Astralis in a bo3. Fnatic at IEM Chicago showed shockingly great form as they pushed Astralis to the very brink and had Astralis by the throat multiple times in the semifinals of that tournament. For that reason, I put them on the list. The problem with Fnatic is that there is too little data to go off of. Outside of IEM Chicago, they haven’t shown that will be their base level of play.
On top of that, Astralis is a team that adapts and learns. The first match is the one with the highest chance of potential upset and the subsequent matches have lower chances of probability, assuming that there haven’t been big internal changes to the team’s strategy or roles. As Fnatic haven’t changed too much from what I saw of IBP Masters, I think they’ll likely be beaten by Astralis should they meet again in a bo3.
A Dream to End the Dynasty
The IEM Katowice 2019 Major looks to be Astralis for the taking. While there are plenty of strong teams there, none of them have the resume that Astralis has built over the last year. As that’s the case, it is not the fervent desire of all teams and players to find a way to end the reign of Astralis and to bring their kingdom to a screeching halt. As Niko says from an HLTV interview,
“The biggest goal for next year is just to knock Astralis off the top, that is my biggest motivation. I am too tired of watching them win everything this year.”
For any team that stands on top of the world, that is the greatest honor of all. To be so dominant that the greatest players in the world want to take you down, but are unable to do so. At this Major, we will see if the wolves can bring down the Astralis Empire or if Astralis will continue their dynasty unimpeded, achieving more and more achievements that could eventually see them enshrined as the greatest to ever do it.